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Companies With a Social Conscience
Whether they are granting wishes to seriously ill children or working to eliminate sweatshops, a number of kids; wear vendors go beyond the creation of apparel. Earnshaw's profiles seven companies that are making a difference.
Earnshaw's Magazine
Erika Berg
August 2003

JUST SAY NO to Sweatshops

American Apparel raked in 40 million in sales for 2002 and is approaching 75 million for 2003, but its financial success and high standards of quality are not the only traits for which the 6-year-old Los Angeles-based manufacturer of basics (T-shirts, knit tops, shorts, pants and underwear) for men, women and children is known. American Apparel — which is run by the 30-something socially aware Dov Charney — has also put itself on the map as a sweatshop free company.

American Apparel maintains its operations under one roof — of nearly 200,000 square feet — and Charney is able to pay his sewers $12 [actual wages as of Jan. 2004-$12.50/hour] an hour and provide them with health and dental insurance, immigration support, English classes, computer classes and even on-site massages. They also receive subsidized bus passes and lunches as well as assistance with finding housing and arranging carpools to work.

According to Charney, the company's vertical operation allows him to offer competitive salaries and still turn a profit. "By compensating workers beyond their expectations, we're able to save money by having a more stable work environment," he explains. "We're able to find new ways of exploiting human potential rather than exploiting human beings." By having all the workers in one location, he can easily oversee them and ensure that they achieve higher levels of efficiency. "You're able to show [the workers] what you want and, in turn, you're able to develop a higher quality product. Also, when you're close to your workers, you see them as human beings," he says. "It's a hyper-capitalistic-socialist fusion: By bringing socialism into the factor, we're able to make even more money."

American Apparel's basics are sold to wholesalers and screen-printers. The company designs a variety of baby and children's tops in fashion-forward silhouettes, including ribbed tanks, lap tees and styles in long-sleeve jersey, raglan, and cap sleeves in every color imaginable. It also offers infant one-pieces and hats.

Charney's awareness with social issues began when he was a young boy — he edited his own newspaper that covered typical kid topics such as Muppet Movie reviews as well as more hard-hitting and grown-up articles on issues like racial discrimination. He first developed a taste for the T-shirt business when he was in boarding school. He stocked up on blank T-Shirts at Kmart, and hauled them back to his native Montreal on weekends where a friend silk-screened designs on the shirts and sold them. In college Charney's T-shirt venture was so successful that he dropped out in his junior year to run his business frull0time. When he launched American Apparel in 1997, he had found a way to combine his love of T-shirts with his desire to make the world a better place.

Charney hopes to make a difference within the apparel industry at large by educating others. He has been profiled on PBS and in publications such as Time, The New Yorker and Adbusters. He believes that it is inevitable that the apparel industry will eventually turn away from off-shore manufacturing, which he says is inefficient. "You can subcontract like (a major designer) and say, 'I didn't know it was like that in factories in China.' But if all the people making (that designer's) clothing were in her building in New York City, she would be able to make sure that things were done more efficiently in a less exploitative way."

One of American Apparel's clients, New York-based Beautiful Futures, sells T-shirts with screen-printed inspirational messages such as "one day we'll have world peace," "Just play nice" and "everything is possible." Owner Kate Gaffin has a firm belief in domestic manufacturing. "We use American Apparel because I believe in its philosophy," Gaffin says. She explained that her company's philosophy revolves around helping children to believe that they can achieve their dreams. "We are born believing that everything is possible, but as we grow up (that changed)," she says. "My company tries to get back to that innocent stage where you believe anything can be done."

Gaffin's designs feature five multicultural characters — Lizzie, age 3, who enjoys "testing how new thins taste on pizza," Ben, age 4, who could sing all the words to his favorite songs before he could talk; Jeremy, age 5, who, when he hears about bad things taking place in the world, wishes he could e-mail all the people involved and them to "just play nice," Samantha, age 4, whose favorite thing is her purple toothbrush; and Brianna, age 6, who wants to be president of the United States. To expand the scope of her message, Gaffin is launching a kids' book series for Spring 2004.

Another company that promotes domestic manufacturing is 3-year-old Gagamondo of Austin, which makes oilcloth bibs and silk baby clothing. Shortly after launching Gagamondo, owner Katey Gillian started Coo de Tot, a design coalition of Austin mothers-turned-business owners who sell hand-made products and are dedicated to local production.

While vacationing in Hong Kong, Gillian followed a suggestion in a guidebook and visited the city's garment district. She wandered into a sweatshop and was appalled by what she saw. "It was very hardcore. It was extremely hot and there were holes in the floor. It looked like a hellish place to work," she recalled. Fast forward to her baby shower - Gilligan wound up receiving cone handmade gifts from local designers. "I enjoyed clothing my daughter, Talia, in garments that didn't symbolize blood, sweat and tears," Gilligan offers. "The thought of a 9-year-old taken out of school to make Talia's clothes really disturbed me. I didn't want to encourage exploitation just to save a buck."

What started out as a group of six artisans quickly grew to include 80 different brands. "I now have people calling from all over Texas and other places like Kansas City, Oklahoma City and Houston asking to join our group," Gilligan says. Coo de Tot hopes to inspire designers in other regions to form their own artisan coalitions and even develop a national chain for independent shops based on their concept. "Every store would carry (products by) local designers so that sweatshop-produced clothes would not be as prevalent," she says. "The main point is to feel good about what you're dressing your baby in."

Creating a WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES

While fighting against sweatshops and supporting domestic manufactures is a noble cause, other vendors have opted to align themselves with community or national programs. DeBorah Beatty and her husband, Rich, owners of Touched by a Rainbow — a 5-year-old tie-dye clothing business in Walla Walla, Wash — help run art programs in local elementary schools and day camps. They started volunteering when a school approached them about helping the pupils make tie0dye T-shirts for Mother's Day. "There are so many kids who are into art and can express themselves best through that medium. But because of cutbacks in school budgets, are classes aren't available anymore to many children," DeBorah Beatty explains. She adds that art is a universal way of communication and is particularly helpful for children with special needs: "Some kids are learning disabled and art allows them to function 'normally' in a school setting. Also, children need to express themselves in other ways than just language."

While they are pleased that they have been making a difference in their own city, Beatty hopes that other businesses will jump on the art-in-school bandwagon. They would like to form a network with other dyers throughout the country and start a national campaign. "We as people, as well as a business, have a commitment to making a difference in (children's) lives," she explains. "If kids see that they can express themselves and that they can do anything, then imagine what healthy, well-adjusted adults they will be."

Toni Eakes also helps children — who have serious handicaps or are terminally ill. Eakes was a "wish granter" for the Starlight Foundation before she stared her Venice, Calif.-based business, an infant and maternity clothing line. "I would talk with the family and the child to find out what the child's wish was, and I would coordinate it to make it happen," Eakes says. "It was really amazing and rewarding — one little boy called me Santa Clause."

When she launched her clothing line, she gave it the moniker "A wish," and had the goal of continuing to make a difference in children's lives. Unfortunately, once her business go off the ground, she couldn't donate her time to the charity, so she decided to make a monetary donation on an ongoing basis. Eakes donates percentage of her profits to Starlight and the Make A Wish Foundation. The business sells to boutiques nationwide as well as online through www.a-wish.net, which advertises the company's commitment to the foundation; customers can make donations through the website. Also, each A Wish T-shirt comes packaged in a gifty organza bag accompanied by a card with the following message: "A Wish proudly donates a percent of all sales to grant wishes to seriously ill children. Through your purchase, you have helped in our mission. Thank you."

Three-year-old Morfs Brand of Lynchburg, VA, which designs clothing made from recycled denim clothing made from recycled denim and vintage fabric, also fulfills wishes for kids in need. Owner Julie Barger pays teenagers at the local youth center to heat press her garments and then they use the money to fund their after-school tutoring programs. Once they have achieved better grades, the students are allowed to use the money to celebrate by buying pizza or throwing parties. Morfs Brand also strives to create its clothing in the most beneficial and lest wasteful ways — Barger buys denim and vintage fabrics from fundraising groups and charity thrift stores. "I make a conscious effort to work with organizations that will put money back into the community," she explains. Barger also notes that she would like to expand her efforts by running a fundraising project: parents would bring in used denim and she would buy it. She adds that she plans to expand the concept by having her teacher friends in other parts of the United States set up denim-buying programs in their schools.

CULTURE club

While many domestic companies stay focused on local or even national causes, others have found a calling for helping those from another country. Brooklyn-based China Sprout helps educate Western families who have adopted Chinese children as well as teach Chinese-American families about their culture. Xiaoning Wang, who grew up in Beijing, runs an Internet-based company that offers Chinese Imports and her own Asian-inspired clothing line. After consistently being approached by people who had adopted Chinese children when she was in the park with her son, Wang realized there was a clear need for these parents to learn about Chinese culture so that they could give their children a sense of heritage. She says, "Our American customers love their adopted children deeply and want to give them an idea of their roots, and Chinese-Americans use our products to teach their children about their native country."

China Sprout began producing Chinese language videos and books, adoption announcement cards and clothing in the traditional Chinese style. Wand also hunted down toys and other educational tools produced by Chinese manufacturers. The company donates products to adoption agencies and schools and works closely with Families With Children From China, a worldwide organization. Wang may also expand the Website's services to include products for families who have adopted children from other countries. She says, "I'm looking for experts and I would love to work with them to broaden our demographic."